The Half Sisters (1848) is a novel by lesser-known Victorian writer Geraldine Jewsbury whose books are described as feminist, and which often questioned the conventional norms and roles that women at the time were confined to. Jewbury who was a novelist, book reviewer (with around 2,000 reviews to her credit, many for the Athenaeum), and literary figure is best known for her book Zoe: The History of Two Lives. Jewsbury herself was as radical as her writings, rather fond of swearing and wore men’s clothes, much like George Sand. Small and boyish, ugly, yet attractive, Virginia Woolf describes her as intellectually a man, but with a womanly heart.  She also was a great reader picking up everything from metaphysics to travels, old books to new books.

Geraldine Jewsbury (via Wikimedia Commons)

I read the Half Sisters over the last month and early this month with a Goodreads group; Both book and author were new to me so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Half Sisters explores the lives of two half-sisters, daughters of one Philip Helmsby. Bianca is illegitimate and has a typically passionate Italian mother who after suffering heartbreak becomes mentally ill, finally completely breaking down on a trip to England in search of Philip. Bianca now has to take charge, 16 though she is, and finds work at a circus as an actress. Slowly she works her way up, facing challenges and hardships on the way, to being a famous London star. Initially helped by young Conrad Percy, she falls in love with him, but he turns out to be the typical fickle hero, at one point deeply in love with her, only to transfer his affections as soon as they are separated. Bianca meets an older actor who advises her on her career and encourages her on, and also another more appropriate suitor, but does she manage to give up on Conrad? And what of her career at a time when her chosen path was especially frowned upon?

The other sister is legitimate: Alice is 14 when we first meet her, discouraged by her mother from pursuing her interests, or indeed her finer feelings and told that she must only be a helpmeet to her husband. She meets and marries a much older man, Bryant, a businessman. Bryant loves her certainly and treats her well, but there is no real connection between the two for his first priority is his business, and he expects her to occupy herself. But how is she to do so, when she has nothing to occupy her time; denied the attention she wants from her husband and with nothing to do (not even good books to read or society to interact with), she becomes more and more disgruntled.

The two sisters are unaware of each other’s existence, though along the way Bianca does find out. The novel basically explores the very different paths the two take; Bianca left to her own devices takes up a definite career path and soon falls in love with her work wanting to improve and do her best, but she faces challenges in various quarters. Alice on the other hand is on the conventional path, but finds herself restless and lacking purpose. Through the two stories, Jewbury attempts to cast light on the need for women to be educated properly, not simply as ornaments and to be encouraged to have something to occupy them rather than lead purposeless lives which can only lead to disappointment, even doom.

While Jewsbury starts off with an interesting premise as well as commendable objective in critiquing Victorian social mores, after a point, the book ends up rather digressing from the plot in an attempt to deliver her message of the kind of education and guidance women need to have. Rather than letting the story deliver her message, she takes to preaching instead; also, she introduces a couple of characters who serve little other purpose than to do this, even though they are shown to have a connection with the main characters. And then when we seem to get back on track with the plot, once again as part of delivering her message, the plot develops in a direction completely different from what readers might expect the story to be.  

Jewsbury gives us an interesting contrast in her protagonists and two engaging threads in their storylines (Bianca’s of course is more so than Alice’s), but she also ends up using a number of stereotypes, perhaps a few too many, whether it is Bianca—on the one hand, genuinely loving her career and devoting herself to improving her art, so much so that she stands up for this before those who disapprove, but on the other, falling into the typical situation of being in love with a completely unsuitable man and being devoted to him despite the signs; later she also takes on an almost angelic role which seems hard to accept in the circumstances that she does; then there is Conrad, who is the typical fickle hero frequently transferring his affections, and bringing about despair for others in more than one way; in his father is the usual disapproving parent out to break their son’s unsuitable relationship, among other things.  

This is not to say that the book was a complete disappointment though; Jewbury does manage to cast light on the state of women’s education, the detriment that conventional roles can bring about for women, as also the state of (some) conventional marriages where there was little real connect between the parties. While there are digressions from the plot, we do get a complete story including a romance thread with the usual misunderstandings. And in Bianca, we have a strong character able to take decisions for herself, stand up for her choices, and not give in to Conrad on everything he wishes simply to please him.

Will I read Jewsbury again, I’m not very sure, but I am glad I did get a taste of her writing and work in this book.

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Half Sisters by Geraldine Jewsbury

    1. Yes, it was somewhat similar to Wilkie Collins’ No Name which also had two sisters, one on a conventional path and the other unconventional. This started off well and was doing fine till midway, then a big chunk digressed into the education theme.

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  1. An author I’ve never heard of. Sounds like an interesting enough premise, although the place of women in society isn’t exactly an underexamined theme(!), but it’s a pity it became preachy. That always puts me off, even if I agree with whatever the author is preaching about.

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  2. Too bad the story wasn’t as strong as you expected, but it looks like an interesting glimpse into the day-to-day lives and the treatment of women in the Victorian age.

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    1. I think it did do that part well; both those who took conventional paths like Alice and married well and those like Bianca forced to earn their living had to face challenges, and ultimately it came down to the face that women weren’t seen or treated as human beings on the same plane as men

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  3. Not an author I’ve come across before, so thank you for the introduction. As you say in your review, it sounds like an interesting premise given the contrasts between the sisters’ lives. Shame about the somewhat heavy-handed style, though. Was this an early novel, by any chance? I’m just wondering if whether her writing evolved over time or maybe it’s partly a case of the general style/approach at the time?

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    1. I think it is her second and her own favourite. Her first, Zoe is her best known. This one wasn’t a bad book by any means but had she woven the preachy parts better into the plot, or kept the section shorter, it would have worked better. Wilkie Collins’ No Name has a comparable premise, and if I remember right, it worked better than this over all. Though it’s been ages since I read it so I’m saying it based on memory.

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